Tourism recovery well underway in St. Thomas, Puerto Rico
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Richard Doumeng's family has owned Bolongo Bay Beach Resort here since 1974; his son is now the third generation to help run the beachfront property, which is perhaps most beloved for its Iggies Beach Bar.
Iggies was one of many structures destroyed in September when this island became one of very few places in the world ever to be ever hit by two Category 5 hurricanes in a two-week span. In a turn of luck, the hotel itself sustained very little damage, and it has been housing displaced island residents and relief workers for months now, along with Doumeng's family and staff members who lost their homes.
Iggies was not only popular with tourists; after 40 years, it had become a local institution as well. So in October, the Doumengs opened what they describe as a pop-up version of the bar, Iggies Oasis, on the site where its Lobster Grille restaurant once stood overlooking Bolongo beach, and next to its newly refurbished pool.
On an island where there has been so much loss, the opening of a new but familiar spot literally felt like an oasis amid a sea of destruction.
The open-air bar is covered with a temporary plywood roof and offers a casual menu. On a hot Sunday last month, a sizable crowd was gathered there, drinking cocktails in the pool as football games played on TVs over tables where unreasonably large burgers inspired Instagram moments.
Bolongo Bay's story and many like it throughout the Caribbean reflect the resiliency and determination to move forward that have enabled the region to begin recovering as quickly as it has, in many cases against all odds.
Having visited both St. Thomas and Puerto Rico in December, I can reliably report that in both places, a vacation experience is likely to be a good one. Certain activities and areas will remain unavailable, such as Puerto Rico's popular El Yunque rainforest park. And on St. Thomas, a dearth of lodging options remains a huge problem. St. Thomas' largest hotels are still closed, and the Elysian Beach Resort, Sugar Bay and the Ritz-Carlton are not projected to reopen until 2019.
Those are the worst cases. Marriott's Frenchman's Cove, Margaritaville Vacation Club, the Wyndham, Emerald Bay and Bluebeard's Beach Club are among the properties hoping to open in February, Bolongo Bay by June.
In San Juan, many beach hotels, including Hilton's El San Juan, the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott, were still closed. But more than 120 hotels are open, and that number grows every day.
During my stay in Old San Juan, I was able to visit its famous forts, walk its cobblestone streets and visit the newly popular La Perla neighborhood (the filming location for the uber-popular music video for the song "Despacito").
My San Juan tour guide, Leo, lamented that the hurricanes stopped a surge in tourism momentum to the island inspired in part by the song and the most-watched YouTube music video of all time, which showed La Perla's colorful streets, its culture and beautiful coastline.
Limitations to the San Juan experience in mid-December included some stores still without power, open but unable to accept credit cards. Other places were open with limited hours or services because so much of their staff had left the island. That was an even larger problem for places that employ specialized workers such as spa aestheticians and cooks. But every merchant I spoke to was planning to be fully operational by Christmas.
In Old San Juan, I stayed at the boutique Villa Herencia, which was full of guests and showed no signs of damage. I arrived on a day that three cruise ships were in town, and their passengers were buying souvenirs and walking the streets.
The visual remnants of the storm -- broken traffic lights hanging over intersections, damaged structures, detritus of vegetation pushed to the side of roadways, construction workers and power-line crews throughout the country -- have no real impact on the visitor experience, but they do serve as a potent reminder of how much the locals have endured.
Conversations with smiling restaurant and hotel workers and guides revealed that, almost 80 days after Hurricane Maria passed, many homes still had no electricity or WiFi. Yet, to a person, they all said their lives would improve if more visitors started arriving.